review

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
Episodes of The Writing on the Wall (BBC1) have all ended with the conventional legal disclaimer - "Any similarity to actual events or persons living or dead is purely coincidental and unintentional." Given that you have just ground your teeth through 50 minutes of peerless implausibility, this is not the most tactful time to be told this. "Any similarity to actual events or persons would be a bloody miracle," is what first occurs to you, because The Writing on the Wall is almost heroic in its detachment from the real world. Having been briskly dismissive of P G Duggan's conspiracy thriller last week, after only one episode, I thought I had better return for a second opinion and I did wonder, for a brief moment, whether I had been a little hasty. For one thing, the cardinal implausibility of the opener - the astonishing ease with which the terrorist gained access to American bases - turned out to have an explanation; Martina was married to an American sergeant and thus had her own security pass. For another, the drama seemed to have drifted away from the tedious nose-to-nose insult-slinging which seems de rigueur in these jurisdictional thrillers.

But Duggan soon threw away the momentary advantage. As the attacks escalated in audacity and international relations trembled on the brink of seismic change, Martina continued to waltz through checkpoints to do her dirty work. What's the girl got to do to get these guys to pay attention, you wondered? Drive through the checkpoint in a clown car, perhaps, or wear a T-shirt saying "I'm a terrorist - shoot me"? When an American officer is gunned down in the middle of his base, it is clear there are witnesses to the crime (the authorities know that it was a 13-year-old who did the shooting), but obligingly none offer a description of the car that picks him up, let alone interfere in the murder. Even more incredibly, a kidnapped officer turns out to have been held inside an American installation - the security guards presumably having helped his kid-napper carry the heavily-bound man up the stairs, before giving chewing- gum to her tiny-teen army.

Such raw wounds to your credulity would matter less if the plotting or dialogue offered any kind of analgesia - but the drama is slavish in its adherence to cliche. The nationalities all obey the expected genre stereotypes: the Americans have immigrant surnames (Hunsacker and Petrocelli) and pepper their tough talking with "shit" and "ass" and "dick"; the East German spy displays a melancholy nostalgia for the old verities (despite the fact that most ex-Stasi men have enthusiastically set themselves up in import-export) and the British display a public school xenophobia (the men) or a cool emotional control (Celia Imrie, God bless her, is even required to utter the line "Oh do stop being so bloody decent" during a moment of romantic stress).

Nor does any element of the production demur from the solemn self-importance of the script - reaction shots have that lingering portentousness which tells you you are in the presence of Meaning and there are more glaringly back-lit silhouettes than are good for any drama. Only very occasionally do you sense a dissident presence - "This represents a savage new twist in this tragically on-going scenario," declared one of the barking Americans last night. Surely the script-editor who let that line through was trying to smuggle out a message?

For some people The Writing on the Wall probably represents the sort of European co-production with which we can defend ourselves from the cultural assaults of Hollywood. But if you compare it with Due South (BBC1), which returned for another series on Saturday, you might be inclined to stagger towards the American lines waving a white flag. Due South, an amiable twist on the town mouse/country mouse theme, is no more credible than The Writing on the Wall but it is witty and it has the immeasurable advantage of knowing exactly where it wants to go and then getting there.

Comments